My Thoughts on the Nature of Humanity

More human than human - Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner

More human than human - Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner

This post was inspired by two recent entries over at BBH Labs. To call those posts thought-provoking does not do them justice. It would be a bit like calling Arsenal FC merely a football club (when in fact they are the sporting embodiment of all that is good, pure and light).

In The Coming Age of Augmentation and I Think, Therefore I Am (a Self-Aware, Superhuman Cyborg)*, Mel Exon and the crew take a deep dive into the world of Artificial Intelligence and where, as a species, we are headed in relation to advancing technology. They provide wicked background and supporting references that make these posts worth discussing, and they are deft enough to make these heady topics relevant for the world of marketing.

One of the main questions at the crux of the matter is: Will technology, in the form of Artificial Intelligence, surpass humanity? For the moment let’s put aside the Terminator / Matrix, evil robots enslave humans question and just look at it in base terms. Will AI be able to “out human” humans?

In many ways I’m sure the answer is yes. I’m sure at some point a robot will be able to write a creative brief or send an email to an editor without my aid. They will probably be able to diagnose a medical problem and recommend treatment. Even in something softer, say chess, we’ve seen that on sheer computing power, AI can take down a human.

Where I have a harder time seeing AI surpass us is in art and that’s where I want to focus my thoughts.

Could a sophisticated computer, with an awesome color printer and an Intelligence reproduce a van Gogh painting? Yes, I’m sure that it could. Could a really advanced computer go through a vast database to analyze van Gogh’s contemporaries, the cultural, social and political issues of the time and create a work that would perhaps be considered “up to the standard” of van Gogh? Ok, I’ll even by that. But here’s the difference – would that ‘original’ piece of art include an additional element, such as is seen in works that feature impasto.

I’m reasonably convinced that an advanced AI could produce pop music the technical and artistic equivalent of say, Britney Spears (in fact, I’m pretty sure that’s already happened). Could the same AI produce the mashups of Girl Talk? Hmm, possibly. What I can’t imagine is a robot having the ability to take the artistic leaps of improvisation that marked the works of Charlie Parker or Miles Davis.

If a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare (see Infinite Monkey theorem) then I’m ok with the possibility of a robot writing a New York Times bestseller. But could it write something like House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski? Again, I have a hard time seeing that.

A future with Intelligent robots condemns us to an existence full of Michael Bay films. An AI Spike Jonze (or Mathew Barney or Jackson Pollock or Bjork…) seems unlikely.

Could an AI create haute couture fashion like Karl Lagerfeld (you know, the stuff nobody wears)? Yes, but could an AI wear clothes like this (courtesy of The Sartorialist):


Ok, I think I’ve made my point. Barring a post-apocalyptic, dystopian nightmare scenario where robots try to kill off humans, I see a secure future for humanity, regardless of the advancements alluded to by the Technological Singularity.

I want to thank Mel, Ben, Patricia and the gang at BBH Labs for inspiring me to think about this sort of thing.

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  • Mel Exon (@melex)

    Rick, anyone who manages to get a Sartorialist shot and a reference to impasto in a post gets props from me.. Seriously, thank you for this post (and your kind words about Labs too).

    I agree there’s more to human sentience than our computing power, our ability to calculate or reason. The ability to create art (by which you mean *real* art, the stuff that moves and enlightens us, just in case a science dude tries to convince us otherwise) is a frontier too far for science as we know it. Perhaps the point is that science is catching art up in the game of creativity? Getting ever more sophisticated & capable, potentially getting to a place in future we simply cannot imagine at this point in time. Who knows. What I do know is that we wouldn’t have been having this conversation a generation ago. I find that exciting.

    If you have a moment, check out Will Nicholls’ blog post, who talks along the same, smart, humanist lines that you do –

    Thanks again.

  • Rick

    Thanks Mel, it is indeed a fascinating time as we seem on the cusp of some very intriguing breakthroughs, both scientifically and artistically. At some point the twain shall meet.

  • Theo Spiteri

    The trouble with Britney is always exactly the same. She is an terrific performer. It is so moving to see her squander it getting caught up in all that awful garbage. The girl should be taken to rehabilitation, or book into a help program, or get a better coach. Will she ever tour in future? I’d murder to see her perform, her performances are so terrific.